Night Flight Remembers: The Surreal Stop-Motion Films of Ladisla Starewicz

By on March 16, 2016

If you stayed up late to watch Night Flight back in the 80s, into the weird wee hours, you may have seen excerpts from somewhat obscure filmmaker Ladisla Starewicz’s wonderfully odd little stop-motion films, like his 1933 film Fétiche Mascotte (The Mascot), or more precisely, you probably saw a short excerpt from it called The Devil’s Ball.

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Perhaps, due to stress or sleep deprivation, you thought you were merely having some kind of hypnagogic hallucination and simply went back to sleep, but we’d like to assure you today that what you may have seen on your TV back then was, in fact, very real — or perhaps surreal is a better way to describe the Hieronymus Bosch in Hades scenario of The Devil’s Ball.

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The Mascot is easily one of the best-known of Starewicz’s films, telling the story of Fétiche Mascotte (“Duffy the Mascot” in English), who is a loving dog puppet that appears to be given life after first existing as a stuffed toy being sewn together by a woman (she drops a teardrop on his heart). He then hears a little girl, apparently dying of scurvy, wishing she was able to enjoy an orange, but she is told by the woman, her mother, that they cannot afford such luxuries. Duffy the dog then practically goes through Hell itself — including a confrontation with a Satan puppet — to bring an orange to the sad little girl. The dog puppet was so successful that Starewicz starred him in four more films, but only The Devil’s Ball was collected on Rhino’s Weird Cartoons collection.

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One of the first things to know about Ladislas Starewicz’s are the many ways his name is spelled — it’s Владисла́в Алекса́ндрович Старе́вич in Russian, but his surname is often translated to either Starevich, Starévitch, Starewich or Starewitch, and there are even misspellings of his first name too (Wladislas and Vladislav are often used, and IMDb lists him as Wladyslaw Starewicz). He was born Władysław Starewicz in Wilno, Poland, to Polish parents in what was then part of the Russian Empire (today, it is Vilnius, Lithuania), and early in life he developed his lifelong fascination with entomology. After graduating from the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts, he became one of the directors of Lovno Museum of Natural History, in Lithuania, and first purchased a camera in 1910, making four short live-action documentaries for the museum in 1910.

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For his fifth film, in an attempt to film a naturalistic nocturnal fight between two male stag beetles, he became frustrated when his actors became sluggish and stopped fighting whenever the camera’s lights went on, rolling over and going to sleep. Inspired by a viewing of Émile Cohl’s Animated Matches (1908), Starewicz decided to re-create the stag beetle fight through stop-motion animation (sometimes called stop-action, or stop-trick photography): by replacing the beetles’ legs with wire, attached with sealing wax to their thorax, he was able to create articulated insect puppets. The result was the short film Lucanus Cervus (1910), which proved to be an instant sensation, and Starewicz soon decided to leave museum work behind to become full-time director.

Starewicz certainly wasn’t the first to use the stop-motion technique; certainly most filmmaking enthusiasts known that French director Georges Méliès had made literally hundreds of short, experimental films, using in-camera techniques, going as far back as before his celebrated Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip To The Moon) was lensed in May 1902. More filmmakers picked up their own cameras to make their own stop-motion films, including J. Stuart Blackton, who in 1906 directed a short film called Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, which used stop-motion as well as stick puppetry to produce a series of effects. French animator and caricaturist Émile Cohl, sometimes called the “Father of the Animated Cartoon,” used the same technique and mixed it with live action for The Haunted Hotel, which was also directed by Blackton: it premiered in Paris in April 1907. Starewicz may have been among the first to use beetle carcases for his actors, however, and his working knowledge of both living and dead animals — he’d studied their skeletons, in fact, and even used some of them in his later films — wasn’t something anyone else was doing at the time.

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He began what he called “puppet films” about 1911, filming dozens of short films (must under 15-minutes long) using the same techniques, with either bugs or animals of various types, and in 1912, after his family had migrated to Russia, he made probably his best animated short Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora (The Cameraman’s Revenge, sometimes The Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman) in which an adulterous insect is captured on film by her cuckolded husband then invited with her unwitting lover to the film’s premiere at the local cinema:

He also began mixing in live-action scenes too, for films like  Rusland and Ludmilla (1915), and On The Warsaw Highway (1916). Starewicz was decorated by the czar and won the Gold Medal at an international film festival in Milan in 1914, but fled Russia after the October Revolution in 1917, emigrating to France in 1920, where he moved into a villa in Fontenay-sous-Bois. He remained there for the rest of his life and career, changing his name to Ladislas Starevich, which was apparently easier for people in France to pronounce (although no one on the internet seems quite sure how to actually spell his name — the family today uses the English spelling Starewitch, which Ladislas apparently used to sign film contracts with).

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Starewicz’s pioneering simultaneous 3-D filming of moving puppets and dolls — along with minimally anthropomorphic animals such as frogs and insects, bears and rabbits, toys and even demonic vegetables (as seen in The Mascot, which is also known in some releases as Puppet Love) — gave his films a very realistic and natural appearance at the same time that they look like feverish hallucinatory dreams that can’t possibly be real. Because of his studies in natural history and ethnology, Starewicz was continually giving his stories a scientific background, and like a scientist, his work was meticulously and laboriously prepared for each delicate frame, paying attention to the smallest of details, like blowing leaves, rhythmically beating lights, rippling water, and real flowers. His effectively used rear-screen projection of real people is still somewhat startling. Starewicz liked to mix both the beautiful with the grotesque; witness how the insects in his films use their tiny arms and legs to catch small hats, handle utensils, embrace their lovers sitting on couches, and even walk upright as though they are human.

Voice of the Nightingale is another of the highlights of his work in Paris, combining both real life and animation to create a film that feels like a strange fairytale, with beautiful flowers, insects, butterflies and birds, each painstakingly photographed and then hand-tinted. Starewicz certainly saw the future of animated cinema, and the potential for longer forms, before a lot of others did.

During the first part of his career, Starewicz did virtually everything himself, although he eventually did have contributions from his family — he was assisted by his wife Antonia, who sewed clothes for dolls and painted their faces, and his eldest daughter Irène (sometimes Irina), who became a writer, puppeteer and animator, and even his youngest daughter, Jeane Starewicz (she starred in Nina Star — that’s her in the Voice of the Nightingale) helped out. As the films grew in length and scope, Starewicz enlisted the help of more experienced puppeteers and artists, including backgrounds artist Josef Natanson, who went on to become an important matte painter in Italian films during the 1960s after first helping out on films like Le Rat de Ville et Le Rat Des Champ (The Town Rat and the Country Rat, 1927).

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In 1933 Ladislas and Irène Starewitcz produced and directed Fétiche Mascotte (The Mascot), and later partnered with Gelma Films to make a series with this character. It was intended to make 12 episodes, but for economic reasons, only 5 where made between 1934 and 1937 and distributed in all the world. These are Fétiche Prestidigitateur (The Ringsmater, 1934), Fétiche Se Marie (The Mascott’s Wedding, 1935), Fétiche En Voyage De Noces (The Navigator, 1936) and Fétiche Et Les Sirènes (The Mascot And The Mermaids, 1937) which was not released because sound could not be added. There is an unfinished film, Fétiche Père De Famille (The Mascot And His Family, 1938).

His longest and most ambitious film was the picaresque feature La Roman De Renard (Tale of the Fox) which took ten years to plan and eighteen months to shoot, completed in 1934 to become the world’s first stop-motion animated feature-length film with sound; it was finished three years before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937; unfortunately its released was delayed due to distribution issues, finally screening in France in 1941 (this was due to the advent of sound and Starewicz’s desire to incorporate music and dialogue, voiced by a full cast).

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He continued to make films for the rest of his life, dying in 1965 while working on the film Like Dog and Cat. During his career he made one hundred films, and it is probably safe to say that he influenced the work of directors such as Hollywood film director Tim Burton, stop-motion animators the Quay Brothers, and even photographer Joel Peter Witkin, among many others, while generally remaining an under-appreciated figure in film, and more specifically, in the telling of animation history.

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It’s not difficult to see how Tim Burton/Henry Selik’s designs for Jack Skellington for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), for instance, not to mention Burton’s sense of creating a dead world come to life, with the slender animated frames and angular features of his characters, could have easily been influenced by Starewicz’s work, and it’s also pretty easy to point out that Wes Anderson would not have directed The Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009 without the influence of his Starewicz’s La Roman De Renard.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.